Iceland quakes more than 40,000 times in three weeks, experts fear volcanic eruption

An aerial view taken on Feb. 28, 2021 shows the blue lagoon near the town of Grindavik, Iceland. (HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP via Getty Images)

More than 40,000 earthquakes, large and small, have struck the Grindavik region of southwestern Iceland over the past three weeks, a phenomenon scientists say is unprecedented and could lead to a spectacular volcanic eruption in the near future. Local residents say they are not afraid and believe authorities will notify them in Time to evacuate, but are eager to get a good night’s sleep.

Grindavik is located in the southern Reykjanes Peninsula, a volcanic and seismically active zone that has seen more than 40,000 earthquakes since Feb. 24 this year, more than the total number of earthquakes recorded last year. Most of these earthquakes have been of low magnitude, but some of the more intense ones have reached magnitude 5.7.

Iceland, a country situated at the fracture between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, has been slowly pulling away in opposite directions, stretching Iceland’s area at a rate of about two centimeters per year, making it subject to frequent earthquakes.

A footbridge near the town of Grindavik that connects the North American plate to the Eurasian plate. (HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP via Getty Images)

Iceland has been shaking for the past few weeks as magma has moved about a kilometer beneath the crust of the Reykjanes peninsula and surged up near the surface.

“We’ve never seen this much seismic activity,” Sara Barsotti, coordinator of volcanic hazards at the Icelandic Meteorological Service, told Reuters.

Icelandic experts said the “unprecedented” seismic activity could be a sign of a volcanic eruption, with lava expected to erupt from cracks in the ground, possibly forming spectacular lava springs that could shoot 20 to 100 meters into the air.

Icelandic authorities had warned in early March that the volcano could erupt soon and was not expected to spew large amounts of ash or smoke, so it would not disrupt international air traffic or damage nearby critical infrastructure.

The Icelandic government had developed a contingency plan for Grindavik last year that included arrangements for boat evacuations if land traffic was disrupted.

Although Icelanders are accustomed to frequent seismic activity on the volcanic island, it is quite rare for earthquakes to occur so intensively one after another, repeatedly waking up people in their sleep. In order to sleep soundly, many locals had to go on vacation or join friends and relatives abroad.

Rannveig Gudmundsdottir, who has lived in Grindavik all his Life, said the frequent earthquakes make it feel like walking on a fragile “suspension bridge” and that everyone here is physically and mentally exhausted. “When I go to bed at night, all I can think about is: Can I get some sleep tonight?”

But he also mentioned, “I believe the authorities will inform us in time to evacuate safely. I’m not afraid of frequent earthquakes, I’m just tired.”